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Tax Deductibility and Voluntourism – Should it Stay or Should it Go?

Posted by Randy LeGrant | Oct 12, 2009, 9:27:00 AM

Industry watch person and consultant, Alexia Nestora of Lasso Communications posted a blog post by Journey Etc. last week about declaring a tax deduction for a volunteer vacation.

Especially now, with the economy still bad and unemployment still rising, it is a valid debate.  I hope you'll join in.  I want to thank Alexia for putting up the original post from Journey Etc. on her own site and for keeping the debate alive.  And thanks to Michele Gran for making certain Global Volunteers is the model 501(c)(3) and posting not only IRS Guidelines but for having a strong policy and ethic on how hard you actually have to work to honestly and legally declare a deduction for volunteering abroad.  I wish the others were like Global Volunteers.

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From Voluntourism Gal: Notes on the Voluntourism Industry

The debate has always been around, should volunteer vacations be tax deductible? Does the mere word ‘vacation’ being used in marketing take away from the level of service that volunteers do in country? Or is the deduction in fact a marketing tool?

Journey Etc wrote an article on this topic addressed at travelers, what do you think about it? Let’s start the debate again.

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Voluntourism – A Vacation with Tax Benefits

You probably know that business travelers can often deduct all or a portion of their travel, even if they are having some fun. But did you know that  you can also get a tax benefit from your vacation? You can  if you are willing to do a bit of work as a volunteer with a non-profit organization.

“Voluntourism” is becoming a popular option for travelers that want to make the most of their vacation.  By volunteering with a non-profit organization a person can travel to almost any global destination, experience the  culture of an area in a whole new way, and have a sense of purpose and of doing good with their vacation time.   And then to top it  off, some or all of their vacation expenses can be deducted on their income tax returns.

To get the tax deduction on your US  Return you must volunteer with a US non-profit corporation.  Habitat for Humanity is one organization that has volunteer opportunities both local and abroad. You could also contact an organization that specializes in voluntourism such as  Cross Cultural Solutions in New York or Global Volunteers which is based out of Minnesota.

There are a number of factors that determine if you can deduct some or all of your travel expenses.  In general the amount deductible will depend upon how much time you spend doing strictly volunteer activities, versus how much time you spend doing strictly vacation activities.

Whatever your skills or talents, there is a volunteer opportunity for you. You can help children and adults with their English. You can provide medical services, or you could help build a home.  You can work, with children, seniors, teens and adults.

When working with a volunteer agency expect to pay your own airfare, plus a program fee that will generally include lodging and meals.   Prepare to be flexible and open to new experiences. Do not expect classy hotels and fine dining.  To save money volunteers are often housed with local families or budget hotels and eat the local food.

If you want a vacation with a purpose, one where you get to really know the local people and culture, and one that comes with a tax benefit, consider voluntourism.  You’ll be glad you did!

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Michele Gran Says:

October 4th, 2009 at 3:23 am


Thanks so much for the mention! I’d like to make one important correction to your article regarding tax deductions for U.S. taxpayers.

In fact, the IRS has very strict requirements for volunteers to average 8 hours per day on the volunteer work project, and that any “tourism” added to the service program may void the tax deduction. (That’s why we eschew the term “voluntourism”) For over 25 years, Global Volunteers has adhered to these requirements, and offers only full-day work projects, while advising that any “add-on” travel will require an opinion by a tax attorney regarding the tax deduction.

Our volunteers have never been challenged by the IRS on this policy. You can read our guidelines here: http://www.globalvolunteers.org/faqs/faq9.asp

Thanks again for your interest in this important way to give while you learn about another culture!

Written by Randy LeGrant

Randy is the Executive Director of the GeoVisions Foundation. He has spent the last 44 years managing organizations that send people abroad on cultural and educational exchanges.

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